The fall of Boris Johnson meant, for the British press, the fall of one of their own. A onetime very well-paid columnist and editor who liked to write books that seemed to place his life in the broader sweep of history, Johnson, like most members of the clubby ruling classes of the U.K., had gone to the right schools and seemingly failed up in his journalism career through the right connections. He honed his buffoonish-toff persona through chummy appearances on Have I Got News for You, a BBC quiz show co-hosted by Ian Hislop, the editor of the satirical and muckraking magazine Private Eye. (There’s nothing like it in the States. Founded in the early ’60s, it is printed biweekly on cheap paper, has little online presence, and slashes with the wit of a British schoolboy. “Getting off the plane at Heathrow,” Christopher Hitchens once wrote, “I would buy Private Eye first, partly to make sure that there would always be an England.”)
As a send-off, Hislop put a toilet, erupting with mess, and a sopping plunger on the cover (see below), calling it the “Boris Johnson Memorial Issue: The Prime Minister’s Legacy in Full.” On Wednesday night, the magazine threw its own “summer work event,” a nod to the Downing Street parties during lockdown that epitomized Johnson’s boozy, blowsy hypocrisy. It was held on the rooftop of a luxe hotel. (I admit I was hoping for something … tweedier.) I weaseled in just long enough to snag a copy of the mag and a glimpse of the Thames before being bounced for gate-crashing. “It was a very British affair,” according to my spy inside the Eye, “but you can’t help noticing that a lot of partygoers are a bit old and arthritic to hit the dance floor with very much vigor nowadays.”
Before the party, I’d met with a cabinet member of the Johnson government. This official participated in Johnson’s downfall but believes that the press will miss Johnson, calling him “the first celebrity Prime Minister.” Comparisons between Johnson and Donald Trump are never quite one-to-one, but this recalled the mood among the Washington press corps shortly after Trump left office. Prominent reporters whined to each other about covering a coup planned over meatballs one day to suddenly being stuck with the tedium of Hill Democrats.
The two Tories vying for Johnson’s job seem dreadfully dull. (This week, at a debate between them, the moderator literally passed out.) One is Liz Truss, a Maggie manqué who was anti-Brexit but now isn’t. The other is Rishi Sunak, a posh Prada-wearing technocrat who is married to tax-dodging billionaire spawn. Sunak was Johnson’s finance chief before becoming one of the first in the cabinet to defect in the wake of the drunken, handsy same-sex behavior of his party’s deputy chief whip at a fancy private club — yes, that is officially the mini-scandal that finally did in Johnson. Now, one powerful Tory who admires Sunak admits that even though many party members agreed the towheaded Caesar had to go, “nobody wants to vote for the guy who’s holding the knife.” Truss seems to be favored to get the job when party members decide in September. (Until then, Johnson’s “caretaker” government remains in place.) But as Douglas Murray wrote in the current issue of the Spectator, “Most of the public has no idea who these people are, and nothing much to get excited about.”
Power-thirsty press barons are adjusting to a post-Johnson landscape. Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail (and his stooge, Paul Dacre) were Johnson’s greatest champion at the newsstand; after running a headline “What the Hell Have They Done?” on July 8, they appear to be going all-in for Truss. The Telegraph is likely to go for Truss, too. Rupert Murdoch’s papers, The Times and the Sunday Times, come across so far friendlier to Sunak. Murdoch’s mass-market tabloid The Sun hasn’t made up its mind yet but will likely land on Truss because the Sun always goes with winners. (Meanwhile, London was abuzz at the sighting of an American press baron, Jeff Bezos, who turned up at the Wolseley on Wednesday for dinner with Lauren Sanchez.)
Everyone was having a good laugh this week at Murdoch’s expense. Editors gleefully passed around the abysmal new ratings for Murdoch’s new television station, talkTV. He’s paid Piers Morgan $63 million over three years to anchor a program and, despite an interview with Zelesnkyy this week and a little News Corp. synergy, things aren’t improving.
In the parlance of Private Eye, News Corp. is “NewsCorpse,” Morgan has for years been referred to as “Piers Moron,” Rupert is “the Dirty Digger,” his soon-to-be ex-wife is “Leggy Hall,” and his heir apparent is “Lachluster.” (The queen is simply “Brenda” and Prince Charles “Brian.”) In my palavers with top members of the British press world this week, people were still trying to figure out why Murdoch really left Hall and debating Meghan Markle versus “Camilla de Vil,” as the Eye called her. (You can guess who is winning that one.)
Just as the Americans wonder if Trump will return, some here are already discussing if Johnson might attempt a comeback. He seems less likely than Trump to do so. As one longtime friend of Johnson’s told me, he is now free to cash in and would probably rather be set up with some sort of sleazy Tony Blair–style ex officio payday. This weekend, Johnson is marrying his bride and baby mama du jour, Carrie Johnson, at a 1,500-acre Gloucestershire estate belonging to a top donor, Lord Bamford. His demesne features a heart-shaped orchard. “Cupid looking down would surely approve,” simpered yesterday’s Mail.
I was told that at the Private Eye party, Hislop — only the third editor in the magazine’s history — chirped to amused guests how his crappy cover had caused so many subscription cancellations that it recalled the furor around his Princess Diana cover. He then recited outraged reader mail. Some letters were printed in the next issue, copies of which were piled on cocktail tables. “You conflate satire with shit,” wrote in Denise Joy Knight, 76, of Perth. “I suggest you are too far up your own arse.” After Robert Maxwell, father of Ghislaine, drowned, the Eye ran a cover that said, “Here Lies Bob Maxwell,” with the accompanying subhead “He lied everywhere else.”
Not unlike Johnson.